Riley Ellison has taken a great leap of faith by giving up her comfortable job at the Tuttle Corner Library for the exciting world of print journalism. Except that so far it hasn't been very exciting. All that changes when Riley's former co-worker Tabitha finds her soon-to-be father-in-law dead on the floor of his office, and Riley is asked to write his obituary. And when they discover Tabitha's fiancé's knife sticking out of his father's chest, Riley finds herself with a murder investigation to cover as well.
With Holman out on leave and mounting pressure from her boss, the mayor, and a bridezilla facing the possibility of a conjugal-visit honeymoon, Riley is desperate to prove she can handle the increasing demands of her new job. Despite warnings from her new boyfriend Jay, Riley blurs the line between reporter and investigator. Will Riley's rookie mistakes lead to more than just her byline ending up on the obituary page?
About the Author
Jill Orr is the author of The Good Byline , the first in the Riley Ellison Mystery series. A graduate of the University of Missouri Journalism school, Orr serves on the board of the Unbound Book Festival. She lives in Columbia, Missouri, with her husband and two children. The Bad Break is her second novel.
Read an Excerpt
So how long will you be gone?" I asked Holman, trying to keep the panic from my voice.
"Depends. Could be a few days or a few weeks."
"Uh-huh. Yeah. Okay. I gotcha." For reasons I didn't understand, I kept spitting out affirmatives. I could feel my head nodding up and down like a bobble-head on the dashboard of a monster truck. "I see. All right. Mm-hmm."
Holman arched an eyebrow. "Riley, are you okay?"
He had clearly not anticipated the effect the news that he'd be taking leave to go undercover would have on me. I was a little surprised myself, but the idea of working at the Tuttle Times without Holman had me feeling panicky, like all the air had been sucked out of the room. Or like I couldn't find my cell phone. I guess I'd come to depend on him more than I realized during the past month.
"A few weeks? Really?"
He shrugged. "The first trip is scheduled for seven days. But if I don't see anything, I may have to do another."
For the past few months, Holman had been working an investigative piece on the TransVirginia Shipping Company. A former employee had tipped him off that the company had been ordering its workers to illegally dump barrels of toxic waste in the ocean to avoid the high cost of proper disposal. Holman had found several former employees who corroborated the story, but all refused to go on the record. As the son of a maritime engineer in the Royal Canadian Navy, Holman knew his way around a ship. So he'd been trying to get a job as a handler on one of the ships, which had proven more difficult than he anticipated. But after several weeks, he'd finally been hired. It was a great break for him. For me, not so much.
"You'll be fine," he said. "You're ready."
"But what if I'm not?" I let my insecurities bubble up to the surface. "I have yet to write a single story without going over it with you first."
"You bring your work to me because it makes you feel better. Not because you need to."
"But who will edit me now?"
"Kay, of course," he said. Kay Jackson was the editor-in-chief of the Times, and although she was technically my boss, I think I'd spoken a total of seven words to her since I started working there. She was nice but scary. And therefore my tenure at the Times so far had been spent comfortably in Holman's shadow. I liked it there. He had become my personal safety net, my insurance against failure.
"Fine," I huffed. "Leave me all alone with the jackals."
"Spencer and Henderson aren't jackals —" "Well, they don't exactly like having me around."
"— if anything, a more apt comparison would be vultures, as they're waiting for you to die, metaphorically speaking, of course, so they can pick off your stories," he completed his thought.
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?"
Holman blinked, surprised. "I wouldn't think so."
The guys in the newsroom had not been thrilled when Holman convinced Kay to hire me. The Times was a small weekly newspaper, and everyone who worked there had worked there forever and had their own turf. Holman was the paper's crown jewel, having received the Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism some years ago, and I was hired mostly to assist him. But at a small paper, everyone pitches in, and over the past few weeks I'd been assigned stories from multiple departments. This wasn't always appreciated.
"They think I'm an intern," I said, sulkily. "Spencer called me Lewinsky yesterday."
"Who cares what they think. You're not an intern. You're a paid employee, same as me."
"Are you sure you won't be available at all, even by phone? Text? Email?" My desperation ticked up as he packed up his files and loaded them into his briefcase.
"Listen," Holman said. "You are going to be fine. And who knows, maybe Flick will even let you help with obits while I'm gone."
I knew he was just trying to make me feel better. Hal Flick hadn't let me do anything for the obituary department except research on the "pre-dead." Even though Kay told him to train me, Flick had stubbornly refused to let me write a single obituary since I'd been at the Times. This was partially because he was an old curmudgeon who didn't like change, and partially because he and I shared a long and complicated history. Either way, it sucked.
People in small towns read the newspaper for two main reasons: high school football and obituaries. Flick had been lobbying Kay for years to let him expand the obit section to include more than just death notices sent in by families or funeral homes. He wanted to run editorial obits, like the kind in The New York Times, true news stories about people whose lives have influenced our community. Kay finally agreed to give him the space for one news obit per issue, and the response had been amazing. People in Tuttle were loving the longer obits. Personally, I felt vindicated that I was no longer the only person in town who realized the simple beauty of the form. Plus, I was thrilled that I was going to get to learn the craft of obituary writing like my granddaddy had done. But so far Flick had kept the juicy assignments all to himself, leaving me the scraps, spellchecking death notices or doing research for our advances, which basically involves calling healthy people and asking them to verify information to be used ... "later." Needless to say, people don't always appreciate these calls.
"What am I supposed to do if I need you?" I whined.
"You won't. This will be good for you — a natural way to bring your training to an end. I have provided you with the knowledge, insight, and experience gained during the course of my career to help launch yours. As the sculptor molds the clay, I have been able to shape you —"
"What?" He looked surprised. "I didn't mean that in a sexual way, if that's what you were thinking —"
I held up a hand to stop him. I simply could not have this conversation again. "That was not what I was thinking. That is never what I am thinking. It's just ... what if I'm not ready?"
"You're going to be fine," he said again with a confidence I envied. "But there is something I'm going to need you to do for me while I'm gone."
"Name it." I got out my notepad to write down the assignment. Was it research for another investigation? Following up with a source? Looking for the proverbial smoking gun?
"I'm going to need you to feed Aunt Beast."
"What? You need me to feed your aunt? Is she ill?"
"No, she's not ill," Holman said, looking at me like I was crazy. "She doesn't have any arms."
This was the first I was hearing about a relative of Holman's with no arms. But before I asked any more questions I paused, waiting for the rest. With Holman I'd learn-ed that sometimes when you thought you were talking about one thing, you were actually talking about something else entirely.
"She gets one pinch in the morning and one in the evening. And if I'm gone for more than two weeks, you'll need to change her."
Before I could object to feeding, pinching, and changing anyone, he pulled out a large cylinder of Bettamin Tropical Fish Food and set it on the desk in front of me.
And there it was: a fish.
Holman pointed to the electric-blue betta fish swimming in a clear glass bowl atop his credenza. I realized that although I'd seen the fish nearly every day, I'd never asked if it had a name.
"You named your fish Aunt Beast?"
"Any particular reason?"
"Aunt Beast. You know, from A Wrinkle in Time?"
It sounded familiar, but I was going to need a little more to go on.
"Aunt Beast is the beloved monster who helps Meg heal and teaches her not to judge people by their appearances."
I looked at Holman and didn't know whether to laugh or cry. It was one of the sweetest and saddest things I'd ever heard. Before I could stop myself, I threw my arms around his neck and squeezed him as tight as I could. "Do you really have to go?"
Holman, for his part, stood quite still except for his long, spindly arms that he stiffly wrapped around me and crossed at the wrists, being very careful not to touch any part of my torso. He'd tried to hug me once before and I remember thinking the experience was akin to being embraced by a stick bug. This second attempt was not much better, but I appreciated the effort.
"Who will protect the coastal waters of mid-Eastern Virginia if not me, Riley?"
I released him and tried not to be offended by how relieved he looked. "Fine. Go save the environment. Leave me here all alone."
Holman picked up his briefcase and turned off the light. "You won't be alone. You'll have Aunt Beast."
* * *
After Holman left for places unknown, or at least unknown to me, I skulked back to my cubicle and was about to text my boyfriend Jay to tell him I was thinking about his cute face when my phone rang.
"Riley, thank God! It's me."
"Me" was Tabitha, my former library co-worker and current bridezilla. I'd been covering some shifts for her at the library as she prepared to marry her blue-chip doctor fiancé, Thad. She'd complained bitterly when I handed in my resignation. "How am I supposed to plan my wedding and do all of your work for you?" I agreed to help out here and there mostly because I loved our boss, Dr. Harbinger — and he loved Tabitha and me. We were both like daughters to him, which I suppose made us like siblings, rivalry and all.
"Can you come meet me? Like now?" she snipped.
Tabitha was an unrelenting taskmaster and no matter how hard I tried, I never seemed to be able to do anything to her satisfaction. I wondered what cardinal sin of information management I had committed this time.
"I'm at work. Can I do it later?"
"That depends," she said. "How long after finding a dead body can you wait before calling the police?"CHAPTER 2
Are you okay?" I asked Tabitha as I stepped into the massive foyer of her fiancé's family home.
"I'm fine," she said. But she didn't look fine; she looked pale. True, Tabitha's skin was always pale, however it was usually an aristocratic pale — farm-fresh cream with a hint of peach — that paired perfectly with her raven hair and haughty attitude. But when she opened the door her cheeks had more of bad-shrimp pallor. In five years of working with Tabitha St. Simon, I'd never seen her look so fragile.
"It's in there," she nodded toward a long walnut-paneled hallway, at the end of which was a door that stood halfway open. The "it" she referred to was the lifeless body of Dr. Arthur Davenport, a prominent local cardiologist and her fiancé Thad's father. I walked down the hallway and peered into the room. Seeing him lying on the rug made me feel a little like I'd eaten a bad shrimp myself, so we walked back to the foyer to wait for the sheriff, whom I'd convinced her to call as soon as we had hung up.
Tabitha told me on the phone that she'd come over to get some measurements that the wedding planner needed — some crisis about the antler arch possibly being too wide for the terrace doors. And since Thad was out of town at a conference and Arthur was supposed to be at work, Thad told her to just run over and get what she needed. She heard the family dog howling from Arthur's office when she got there, which was weird, so she went to go see what was the matter. And the matter was Dr. Davenport lying dead on the floor.
"Do you know what happened?" I asked.
"I have no idea. Maybe a stroke? Heart attack?"
"Is there a reason you didn't call 911 right away?"
Tabitha paused before speaking, as if it was difficult for her to remember what she'd been thinking. "When I saw him lying there like that ... completely still, eyes open ... it was very unnatural-looking, you know? I felt his neck for a pulse and his skin was cold and stiff like leather." She shuddered. "It was obvious he was already gone. I didn't know what to do, so I called you." She looked up at me, her eyes shining with emotion.
She looked so vulnerable in that moment, I was actually rather touched. Maybe I was more important to Tabitha than I realized. Maybe after all these years of working together we were forming a friendship, despite her outward hostility toward me? I moved to give her a hug, but she took a step back.
"Besides, a dead body doesn't need an ambulance. It needs an obituary. You do write obituaries, don't you?"
Okay. So maybe she didn't call me for support.
"Why don't we go sit down?" I said. I was a bit stung, but more than that I was eager to change the subject. I may have slightly exaggerated the level of my responsibility in the obits department to Tabitha. But when she kept pressing me to cover more and more of her shifts at the library, I felt it sounded better to refuse because I'm swamped at the paper, rather than I just want more time to hang out with my hot new boyfriend Jay. And besides, it wasn't my fault that I wasn't writing obits yet. That was on Flick.
"Don't worry about the obit," I added. "I'm sure we can get it in for this Sunday, or worst case, next week's edition."
"Next week?" Tabitha rounded on me like a cage fighter. "Do you know what is happening here exactly twelve days from tomorrow?"
Of course I knew, but I wasn't about to answer her when she asked me like that.
"The wedding event of the season is going to be held in this very house. Have you ever planned a wedding for 450 guests, Riley? I doubt it very much. So let me tell you, it doesn't just happen. It takes time, precision, and decisive action." She spoke of it more like a military operation than a wedding. "And it's not like I'm getting a lot of help or anything. So I'm sorry that Arthur is dead, I really am, but you will excuse me if I'm being proactive in getting the ball rolling on his obituary. If it doesn't get in this Sunday's paper, there is no way we can have the funeral by next Thursday, which needs to happen because the antler artists will need to get in here by the following Monday, latest." Her face was flushed, eyes wild. "The arch takes four days to be constructed, which only leaves us a one-day cushion for contingencies. Not to mention the flagstone path that needs to be finished up, final alterations on my dress, confirming the musicians, the caterers, and the florists" — she was really working herself into a lather — "so as sad as it is, you'll understand the importance of getting the show on the road so-to-speak. Life doesn't just stop because someone dies!"
"Okay, just calm down, Tabith —"
"Why am I even explaining this to you?" She turned away, cutting me off like a boil. A second later we heard the sound of sirens screaming up the long, winding stone driveway. It was acting-Sheriff Carl Haight and his deputy Chip Churner, who everyone called Butter.
"Miss St. Simon. Miss Ellison," Carl said as he stepped out of his cruiser. Even though I had known Carl Haight since I was four years old and we used to play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles together at preschool, he preferred that we keep things professional while on the job.
"Acting-Sheriff Haight," I said. "Hey, Butter." Butter didn't stand on ceremony.
Carl tipped the corner of his hat toward Tabitha. "I'm sorry for your loss, ma'am. Coroner's on the way."
Tabitha's arms were crossed tightly across her chest. "I'll show you to the, um, body." She led the two officers toward the back, leaving me alone in the foyer. "Riley, don't go anywhere," she called over her shoulder.
As I watched them walk away, I couldn't help but wonder why Tabitha had called me before she called the sheriff. I wasn't buying her obituary story, and it wasn't like we were exactly friends. We were more like frenemies, if anything. And it's not like a girl with nine bridesmaids would call a former co-worker-slash-frenemy for support. There was something weird going on with Tabitha.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Bad Break"
Copyright © 2018 Jill Orr.
Excerpted by permission of Prospect Park Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I enjoyed the characters and the story. I hadn't read any of the prior books but I was able to keep up with the past. good writing & fun to read
Jill Orr writes with a fresh voice, one uniquely clever and gently sardonic without overreaching. Both her Riley Ellison books thus far, The Good Byline and The Bad Break, deliver a brilliantly witty read delicious to consume. The intrigue of mystery pulls the reader deeper into the story, but it is the lovable, flawed heroine who brings the series its heart. In Riley, I see my best girlfriends and myself. A complex character, she is both confident and insecure, overzealous, but with the best of intentions, and uncannily smart, except when it comes to her own affairs. These characteristics exemplify, by far, Riley’s best quality; she is authentic. Jill’s books are a treat to be savored in a window nook with a glass of wine. I look forward with not-so-guilty pleasure to more of Riley’s adventures.